A dozen Californian church leaders have been indicted by a federal grand jury, charged with forced labour of the homeless in what a US attorney has called ‘an appalling abuse of power’.
Twelve Imperial Valley Ministries leaders allegedly recruited people with the promise of food, water and shelter.
The reality was much different: according to a news release on Tuesday that announced the indictment had been unsealed, those recruited had to beg for money for nine hours a day, six days a week and give up their welfare benefits ‘for the financial benefit of the church leaders’.
Details of the ‘appalling abuse’ is explained below:
US Attorney Robert Brewer said the ministry leaders – including an ex-pastor, Victor Gonzalez, who denied he’d done anything wrong last year when the FBI raided the group homes – will face charges of conspiracy, forced labour, document servitude, and benefits fraud.
As reported by CNN, Brewer said:
The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals.
These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.
The ministry leaders – who help operate nondenominational churches and group homes in the United States and Mexico – were arrested in El Centro and San Diego and in Brownsville, Texas. Arraignments began on Tuesday (September 11).
According to the indictment, the defendants confiscated IDs such as driver’s licenses, immigration papers and passports to prevent victims escaping group homes – which had deadbolt locks only the leaders had access to.
Brewer added that one of the victims was a 17-year-old girl, who managed to escape by breaking out of a window and going to the police.
As reported by CNN, Assistant US District Attorney Chris Tenorio said at a press conference:
Dozens of victims have alleged the same thing — once they were inside the group homes, the Imperial Valley Ministries had become a venture designed to keep as many as people as possible for as long as possible.
Tenorio added that those recruited were threatened with punishment for violating house rules, and were so closely monitored to the point they weren’t allowed to go anywhere unattended. Brewer added that victims were told their children would be taken from them if they left.
Victims were stripped of their benefits and items, such as Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards that allowed the holder to buy food.
According to Scott Brunner, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office, victims were deprived of necessary medical attention. Brewer said this included a diabetic who was refused insulin and even the food needed to control their blood sugar levels.
Labour trafficking victims are hard to find, Brunner says, because their work is so often carried out behind the scenes on farms, factories and restaurants.
Offering a message of hope to victims, Brewer said:
I would like this case to send a message to the victims. That message being: We want to help you. You have to report these types of crime to law enforcement, so that we can help you.
You can watch the full press conference below:
You can contact The Modern Day Slavery Foundation’s helpline on 0800 0121 700, which is open 24 hours a day. If you think a child is in danger of trafficking, phone the NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 8005 000.
After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.